Soon after graduating from the University of Florida in 1987, I moved to Tampa in search of a career. My old roommate Erich had been pushing for me to move in with him so we could stretch the glory days a few more years before having to get serious about life. When he called one day to say his parents would let me stay in his brother’s old room at their house for free, that was all the convincing it took.
With virtually no living expenses, we soon found ourselves flush with cash from the meager income of our entry level jobs. This, of course, meant we had to buy a boat. The nice salesman at the local boat yard said we could finance the 19 foot Mako we liked with only $1,000 down and a payment of $130 per month. We signed the papers and had it in the water later that same afternoon.
The cash outlay tapped both of us dry so it would take a little time to replenish our cash reserves enough to afford some of the basic accessories that typically go with a boat such as life preservers, dock lines, and an anchor. We were determined not to let such minor shortcomings stand in the way of our fun times. We found three old rotten 1960’s-era life preservers in the rafters of Erich’s garage that just might keep us from getting a ticket if the marine patrol officer was in a good mood that day. My dad also had a huge spool of black plastic rope he’d gotten somewhere years prior that would work just fine for anchor and dock lines. Someone had once shown me how to make an anchor by poking a couple pieces of rebar through a milk jug so they formed an X. Then, all you had to do was fill the milk jug with concrete and you were in business.
I had only been diving for a couple years, but I regarded myself as quite the expert having received an advanced certification in a blow-off elective SCUBA class my last semester in school.
Between Erich and myself, our dive gear was comprised of one Sherwood BC, one bright yellow tank adorned with 98 Rock bumper stickers, a chinsy Voit speargun, a dive knife, and some kind of off-brand regulator Erich bought at a local sporting goods store that consisted of a first and second stage only – no octopus, no depth gauge, no inflator hose, and no pressure gauge.
Thoroughly outfitted as we were, it was time to put our diving skills to the test. Erich had read in the paper that people were catching fish over the wreckage of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge that collapsed in 1980 when the freighter Summit Venture slammed into the South pier. The debris was later removed when the old bridge was demolished in 1990, but in 1988 the center span was still lying on bottom. The piles of concrete, steel girders, and deck sections resulted in a very nice artificial reef conveniently located less than a mile from shore.
“I hear there are a lot of sharks in the pass. You think they hang out around that structure?” I asked using voice inflection that sounded like I was saying sharks were a good thing that made diving lots of fun rather than a wimpy suggestion that we should exercise caution.
“Nah, man. They don’t bother you unless you’ve got a bunch of fish on your stringer. If you see one, all you have to do is poke him in the nose with the tip of your spear.” Erich replied with his characteristic dismissal of trivial details like personal safety.
Did I mention we shared one set of dive gear between the two of us? We considered spear fishing by oneself to be no problem for accomplished divers like us regardless of what the instructors said over and over again about the importance of a dive buddy. It was like that silly procedure of signaling the boat with an OK sign right after entering the water which we dismissed as a rule that only applied to sissies.
We arrived at the dive site around noon one Saturday and dropped our milk jug anchor next to an 18 foot Bayliner crammed with four large 30-something-year-old anglers. A quick assessment of the protruding beer bellies, tattered auto parts store ball caps, and lower than average tooth count and I determined they must have had names like Earl or Bubba.
I lost the coin flip to see who would dive first. Erich donned our singular set of gear and executed a giant stride entry from the Mako into Tampa Bay. Twenty minutes later, he surfaced at the stern with no fish on the stringer.
“There’s nothin’ down there.” He grumbled as he climbed into the boat.
“You mean you didn’t see any fish at all?” I asked.
“Maybe one little Sheepshead. Not worth spearing. The only thing down there is a bunch of anchors people cut loose after they got hung up in the structure.”
“Cool! We need an anchor.”
“You wanna take the speargun?” Erich asked.
“No, just give me the dive knife.” I said.
As I approached the bottom, I was surprised to find that the visibility was actually pretty good, relatively speaking. It was probably 10 to 15 feet which is about as good as it gets in the middle of Tampa Bay.
The complexity of the twisted bridge structure was amazing. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t covered with reef fish, but sure enough, there wasn’t even a grunt down there. Erich was also right about the anchors. They were everywhere. The lines attached to them looked like spider webs stretching from one twisted hunk of steel to the next. I chuckled to myself thinking of all the guys cussing and moaning as they had to cut their anchor lines so they could go home.
Most of the anchors looked like they had been there a while – rusty and covered in barnacles. But this anchor-stealing debris pile was an on-going problem for the local fishing community so I reasoned there must be some newer ones worth having.
Sure enough I spotted a nice Danforth within a few minutes. The attached anchor line was badly frayed and it required very little effort to cut with the serrated edge of my knife.
I took a minute to inspect my prize as I considered whether or not I should surface with it. The anchor was clean and new, but it wasn’t very big. I doubted it was rated to hold a 19 foot boat. I’d only been underwater about ten minutes so I decided to keep looking and see if I could find a better one.
I held on to the anchor I had for the time being in case I couldn’t find a better one. The extra weight meant I needed to add air to my BC to maintain neutral buoyancy. With no inflator hose on our state-of-the-art regulator rig, I had to manually blow into my BC to add air. No big deal for an expert diver such as myself.
About 10 minutes later, I came upon another anchor that seemed to have promise. No rust, no barnacles, considerably bigger than the other one – yep, this one was perfect for the Mako. Even the anchor line looked good. The other end of it was beyond my range of visibility – probably snared in a hulk of structure just out of sight. I swam up the anchor line 20 feet or so, but I still couldn’t see the end. It appeared to gradually angle up so I assumed it went on for at least another 15 to 20 feet into the debris pile.
Hey, this is great, I thought to myself. 40 feet of that braided nylon anchor line was much better than the black plastic cord we’d been using with the milk jug.
I swam back to the anchor for another look. Maybe I could just pull the line loose if I got a good grip on the anchor. Obviously, the anchor lines got frayed from being wrapped around the debris so it would probably just break if I pulled hard enough.
I bled the air out of my BC so I could sit on bottom, dug the heels of my fins into the sand, grabbed the anchor with both hands, and started pulling. The nylon line stretched like a rubber band and didn’t even think about coming loose. I walked backwards on my heels to put some tension on the line and jerked as hard as I could several times. No luck. Maybe I needed to pull from a different angle. I walked the anchor over about 15 feet to the left and tugged some more. Still no luck. I swam about 20 feet to the right and repeated the process, but it still wouldn’t come free.
It occurred to me that I was winded and breathing hard. How long had I been down? Maybe 30 or 40 minutes? I should have had plenty of air left considering I was only about 25 feet down, but the heavy exertion meant I was consuming air at a much faster rate than normal. I also didn’t have a dive watch so I wasn’t sure how long I’d been under. I wished we had a pressure gauge. I wasn’t even sure of my depth. Erich said it was 25 feet deep under the bridge, but what did he know? This was the middle of the channel. Didn’t some of those big cargo ships have a 20 foot draft? If so, the channel had to be at least 30 feet deep, didn’t it? If I was deeper than expected, I was probably getting low on air. Hmmm… maybe that concept about always having a dive buddy wasn’t so overrated after all.
I decided to quit while I was ahead. I drew my dive knife from the sheath on my leg and cut the line to free the anchor. I remember pausing for a few seconds to wonder if there was enough air left in my tank to inflate my BC and also breathe on my way to the surface. Well, there was no way I could haul that anchor up without inflating it so I performed the oral inflation procedure again and scolded myself for thinking like a mama’s boy as I ascended.
When I surfaced, Erich yelled, “Hey, man! You wouldn’t believe what’s been going on up here! Did you see the shark or whatever it was?”
“What shark?” I asked.
“The guys in that boat next to us had their anchor line attacked by a huge shark or something. You should have seen ‘em! It was pulling so hard it jerked their boat back and forth and knocked them all down. It thought it might even pull the boat under, but I guess it bit through the line after a few minutes. I can’t believe you didn’t see it down there. Whatever it was, it must have been huge!”
I dropped the anchor and let it sink. As I climbed into the Mako, I told Erich to pull up the milk jug because we had to go immediately. I lunged over to the console and started cranking the motor without even bothering to remove my dive gear.
“What’s the rush?” Erich asked.
“I’ll tell you in a minute.” I said. “Let’s go.”
As we started throttling up, I saw realization dawn on the face of one of the Bubbas as he stood in the front of the Bayliner with the cut braided nylon anchor line in his hand.
“Heyyy… hey….hey, get back here!!” Bubba yelled.
I guess Erich figured it out about the same time because he suddenly fell on the deck writhing in laughter.
On Monday, I went to Walmart and bought an anchor. I didn’t even ask Erich to split the cost.